An 'oddball' comes of age in an SA filled with confusion and rage

26 March 2020 - 10:33 By Mila de Villiers
James Hendry, author of 'Reggie & Me'.
James Hendry, author of 'Reggie & Me'.
Image: Supplied

Wildlife TV presenter, musician, former ranger, conservationist and author of three books detailing bos-stories, James Hendry, is running slightly late for our appointment as the second-generation Scotsman is out kilt-shopping in light of his forthcoming nuptials.

Hendry recently penned his fourth title, Reggie & Me, and is spending a few weeks in his hometown of Joburg promoting this novel set during the last 18 years of apartheid. 

“Eighteen” is of significance here, as this part-Bildungsroman follows the coming-of-age of Hamish Charles Sutherland Fraser, an oddball upper-middle class boy coming to terms with the sociopolitical changes which surround him: from his birth in 1976 to the advent of democracy.

Hendry, whose childhood shares many similarities with that of Hamish, originally started writing a non-fiction account of gender and race prejudice in SA and the inherent nature of inequity which accompanies both.

His publishers decided that “as a white middle-class male” he was “not the right person” to write this narrative, since he has never experienced the extent of enmity which women and black South Africans have been subjected to.

Henry's focus shifted to a novel in which “I was trying to give voice to” South Africans forced to endure the injustices of apartheid.

The titular Reggie (short for “Regina”) is based on a girl Hendry befriended in Montessori school yet - unlike Hamish - lost contact with when Hendry was sent to an all-boys school come grade one. 

Hendry's working title for the novel, The Tale of Hamish Charles Sutherland Fraser, was deemed “too wordy” by his publishers. Hendry acknowledges that Reggie & Me is a “catchy” and appropriate title as “Reggie is hugely central to Hamish's development as a character”.

“Reggie played a pivotal role during Hamish's years as a young adult to allow him to understand sadness and tragedy.”

The two first meet as four-year-olds in Hamish's beloved walnut tree in the garden of their school and bond over a mutual love of ponies. (Hamish is so taken by Reggie that he even offers the initial intruder a walnut - a rare gesture for this loner who prefers drawing the selfsame nut to playing with his classmates ...)

Hamish and Reggie remain friends throughout primary school yet - over the coming years -  their friendship is impeded by unexpected adversity.

Reggie's dad, Prof Albert Fine, an anti-apartheid academic and almost certainly a clandestine member of the South African Communist Party, Hendry writes, further serves as a reminder of the racial tension of apartheid-era SA.

The senior members of the Fraser family - Hamish's dad Stuart and his mum Caroline - are by no means your archetypal wealthy, white, racist South Africans, whereas Hamish's maternal gran, Elizabeth, not only harbours delusions of grandeur but also one of innate prejudice towards anything/anyone which bears no resemblance to the literal concept of “European”.

Exhibit the following interaction between Albert, the Frasers' domestic worker Tina, and Elizabeth during a dinner party at casa Fraser:

As Stuart was about to offer drinks, Tina emerged carrying a tray of home-made cheese straws and a bowl of olives.

‘Sawubona, dadewethu,’ said Albert to Tina.

Zulu wasn’t Tina’s mother tongue but she spoke it well.

‘Yebo sawubona, baas.’

Angiyena ubaas dadewethu, ngi ngumfowenu. Unjani na?’

Tina was gobsmacked. This was the first white man who’d ever suggested she was an equal – a sister no less ...

Elizabeth was the first to speak. ‘I say, where on earth did you learn to speak black?’

‘Black? Black isn’t a language.’ The professor’s face pinched.

‘Mum,’ said Caroline through gritted teeth, knowing that no amount of kicking under the table would stop her.

‘Isn’t it? Well, that sounded like black to me. It certainly wasn’t the tongue of Chaucer.’

‘It was isiZulu, just one of at least nine indigenous languages that white people in this country have studiously avoided learning, despite the fact that we make up such a minute proportion of South Africa’s population.’

Elizabeth drained her glass of crimson Campari and looked dismissively into the twilight. ‘Well, I’m sixty-four years old and I’ve never had cause to speak black.’

‘That’s because you, like most whites, are prepared to sit by and observe as a totally amoral dispensation perpetrates crimes against humanity on a daily basis.’

Elizabeth simply couldn’t resist. ‘My dear man, why are you Jews so dramatic always? By all means, speak black or Sooloo if you like, but I’ll thank you not to poison my grandsons’ minds with your bilious red propaganda and notions of racial equality.’

Mum! That’s enough!’

As Stuart emerged with a tray, the professor leapt out of his seat, leant across the table and pointed a grubby finger at Elizabeth’s nose.

You fucking racist cow!’ Albert yelled, spittle flying from his mouth. ‘It’s people like you who are aiding and abetting endless misery for millions of black people with your attitudes that belong in the Dark Ages!’

Elizabeth sat back in her chair, one eyebrow slightly cocked, her face a picture of serenity. ‘You have the fingernails of a labourer,’ she said, considering the digit pointing at her. ‘I suppose that goes with being a Bolshevik.’

Hendry “never knew an Albert”, adding that “my folks had journalist friends” but no-one as unyielding in their pursuit to delegitimise apartheid as Albert - to the extent of alienating his family. Hendry adds that the character was employed as means to “understand the conflict of the time”. 

Another title Hendry had in mind for the novel was that of Kapenta, in reference to a conversation Hamish has with his high school head boy, David Swart, following an episode after which Swart relieves Hamish from the resident school bully:

‘Form I is a tough year – you are a small fish in a big pond again and you —’ he exhaled loudly as he considered Hamish ‘— you are the size of a kapenta. Do you know what a kapenta is?’

No.’

It’s a freshwater fish – but that’s not important. Some of the older boys are going to try and dominate and probably bully you because you are small and because you sing in the choir. With the bullies you can either choose to tell a prefect or a master, or you can deal with them yourself. I was about your size in Form I and I found a hard punch to the face was the most effective way to deal with bullies.’

A thread of the novel which has been commented on by the majority of its readers is that of the bullying Hamish is subjected to at his prestigious all-boys school and the synonymy of toxic masculinity and all-male education.

Hendry concedes that bullying remains a prevalent “feature” of all-boys' schools, yet asserts that bullying isn't symptomatic of all-male schooling. 

He maintains that “we are a bullying society” and that violence isn't limited to all-boys schools. Bullying is equally prevalent in corporate environments and all-girls schools (“my sister went to an all-girls school; she was bullied”) as it is in St John's playground, he continues.

He adds that one only has to look at any teen movie to notice that bullying plays a central role in the plot. (Hendry derisively mentions Mean Girls - aka the film of our generation! - here.)

Hamish clearly thrived in a Montessori-set-up, which jars with his parents' decision to enrol him in an all-boys school: whereas Caroline expresses concern about her eldest son's wellbeing, Stuart opines that mainstream schooling - specifically that of all-male education - will prepare him to navigate similar spaces (for example an office setting) in the future.

Thus the kapenta was let loose into an ocean of barracudas.

From private schools to being raised in the larney Joburg suburb of Inanda, Hamish's socioeconomic status is one which the majority of South Africans can't relate to.

The Frasers are “extremely privileged”, Hendry acknowledges. “They don't want for anything, they don't struggle, they have holiday homes.” 

Hamish also participates in “the most privileged sport possible” - that of show jumping. 

His owning a pony and weekly visits to the stables stands in complete contrast to how the ponies' groom, Colin, lives, says Hendry. “It puts his privilege starkly.”

Colin, an illegal Zimbabwean immigrant in his early forties, is treated poorly by the white children whose equines he tends, and relies on half-loaves and polony (the standard 'groom's lunch' as sold by the Transvaal Horse Society) for sustenance during the day.

The two develop a bond and their relationship contributes to Hamish's consciousness of the divided society in which they live. 

His sense of social awareness is furthered by a trip the Frasers take to the Eastern Cape dorpie of Kenton, during which they employ a Xhosa woman, Daisy, to help fix up their stately, yet ramshackle house.

Daisy's son Ayanda is roughly Hamish's age and she proposes to Caroline that Ayanda spends some time with the Fraser siblings to improve his English:

‘Mummy,’ she began, ‘I can bring Ayanda for playing – his English at school is not good. Maybe your boys help this?’

Saying this a tremendously liberal thing, Caroline agreed readily.

Being introduced to Ayanda creates a sense of social awareness in Hamish which he previously wasn't privy to, incited by accepting an invite to spend a night with Ayanda and his family. 

This visit is a momentous occasion, as it's the first time that Hamish will be spending the night away from home and marks the “first time that he appreciates the haves and have nots and how it's racially-based,” Hendry explains.

Sleeping on a reed mat and having to make use of a long drop simply doesn't exist in this Inanda boy's vocabulary:

‘There is toilet.’ Ayanda pointed towards a structure made of corrugated-iron scraps about twenty metres away, much of it covered in a tangle of granadilla vines. ‘But only for pff pff.’ The host made loud farting noises and pointed at his bottom. ‘Bushes everywhere for psss.’

This he indicated by holding his finger in front of his fly.

Hamish laughed and willed his bowels to hold until his return home the following morning. Psss in the bush was one thing; pff pff in a rusty pit latrine with newspaper for reading and wiping was quite another.

More “familiar” aspects of farm life included the milking of a cow, a skill Ayanda was adept at, yet his big city guest struggled with:

‘You now,’ said Ayanda. ‘That one.’ He pointed at one of the other teats.

Hamish replicated the action more gently and a few drops came out.

More strong!’ said Ayanda.

Hamish tried again and this time a jet of frothy cream came forth. The satisfaction he felt was immense, and after ten minutes Ayanda had to draw him away.

(And no, Hendry has never milked a cow - thanks, YouTube!)

Set in a country where 11 languages are widely spoken, yet only two were recognised pre-1994, Reggie & Me features sentences written in Zulu, Afrikaans and Xhosa, sans English translations. 

“It worked quite nicely here,” Hendry says, furthering that English-speaking South Africans are “particularly poor” at either speaking or learning other indigenous languages. 

He hopes that the non-English passages will prompt readers to “make the effort to look it up”.

At the end of Form II Hamish is tasked with selecting his final-year subjects and picks Zulu as one of his electives.

His reasoning is twofold: first, he wants to be able to hold a proper conversation with Zulu-speakers he meets, as opposed to an elementary “sawubona”. 

His growing political awareness also contributes to this decision: 

The young Hamish was savvy enough to realise that learning a local language would make navigating the so-called ‘New SA’ a little bit easier.

Hamish's Zulu classes “shapes him hugely” with the 23-year-old Miss Vuyelwa Mkhize playing a particularly big role in Hamish's development. Miss Mkhize is described by Hendry as a woman who's “in many respects ahead of her time, confident and very clear about her independence”.

He adds that Caroline considers herself a liberal, yet she isn't independent.

Miss Mkhize's race and gender are powerful factors in Hamish's realisation that she, as a young, independent black woman, doesn't need to be protected, Hendry says. This is best illustrated in the novel when she gives Robert Gumede, a classmate of Hamish's, a solid snotklap. 

While Miss Mkhize's sixth form Zulu class wait for her in one of the school's quadrangles, Gumede is reprimanded by their principle Mr McAdams for catcalling three girls on the school premises. This prompts the headmaster to deliver a spiel on chivalry, with Miss Mkhize arriving mid-rant...

‘Let me tell all of you boys something. Because that is what you are – boys.’ She stood up and tapped her sternum. ‘I don’t need any man to protect me or make a safe space for me – I am not vulnerable, nor do I need or want any “gentleman” to look after me!’

Hamish realised with growing incredulity that this rant was directed at her boss – whose speech on chivalry he’d thought thoroughly rousing – and not at Robert Gumede.

‘Do you all understand me?’ She looked from one boy to the other.

Hamish nodded, despite his confusion.

‘Yoh!’ Gumede said from the desk closest to her. He raised his eyebrows. ‘Ma’am don’t like no old white McAdams!’

Miss Mkhize’s right arm shot out like a striking mamba, her open palm collecting Gumede over his left ear. The class gasped at the meaty thwack. Gumede sat stunned for a few moments and then coughed once, not daring to move.

Miss Mkhize turned to the board and picked up a piece of chalk.

‘We are doing palatalisation today – make some notes.’

Hendry describes the headmaster as “a chivalrous old character who doesn't realise his own misogyny” - the antithesis of Miss Mkhize. 

Passages in the novel which Hendry found most amusing to write predominantly take place whenever Hamish is exposed to any sport barring show jumping. For ball skills this fellow does not possess.  

Sport plays a substantial part in the book as sportsmanship is “proxy for the social hierarchy,” Hendry explains.

Upon signing up for rugby, Hamish is appointed scrumhalf. Having no idea what a scrumhalf is and never having held a rugby ball before, the moment he touched the scuffed leather bladder, he fell in love.

Though Hamish proves to be more of a burden than an asset on the rugby field, his determination to channel his inner Danie Craven “mirrors his efforts to shape socially ...  Hamish loves rugby but he's dreadful at it. He's neither physically nor psychologically ready and is built small and fearful not small and fearless”.

Ja-nee kyk, sport certainly isn't Master Fraser's forte:

When it came to school sports, Mr Lawrence had given a consistently poor assessment of Hamish’s abilities, beginning all the way back in Grade One: 'Hamish does not enjoy sport. He is physically weak and his lower back is unusually curved, which should be looked at by a physiotherapist. During cricket, I often have to reprimand him for wandering off or lying on the grass. His batting is poor and he is unable to bowl. Soccer is also difficult for him because he cannot control the ball and makes little effort. He is able to swim freestyle well enough but is slow in the water.'

Hendry also especially enjoyed writing the bit where Hamish is smacked in the ribs by a cricket ball, as he's too busy tasting an acorn to notice the approaching missile. . . 

His lack of sporting skills and abilities sees Hamish idling on the boundary of the cricket field. This less-than-desirable position has two advantages, though: shade and acorns.

A combination of curiosity and his indifference towards the sport culminates in Hamish's decision to test the taste of an acorn. Inevitable injury aside, the bitterness of the acorn furthermore adds to Hamish's woes: 

Hamish was now doubled over, retching. The fielder vaguely heard yelling but so intense was the assault on his tongue that he failed to heed any warning. The ball bounced once and hit Hamish in the ribs. He collapsed.

Hendry, now an avid cricket-fan, found the sport to be profoundly boring as a young 'un and employs Hamish's incompetence on the cricket field as a trope of “a little kid stuck out on the boundary”.

Moments of merriment aside, Hendry believes that his novel also contains lessons for privileged white South Africans and the effect their ignorance thereof has on their fellow, less privileged citizens.

Hendry hopes that Hamish's social struggles will resonate with black South Africans; “that they might see a humanity in him not seen in white people”. 

In light of this statement, Hendry shares an anecdote about a conversation between him and a black South African woman which took place after the Joburg launch of Reggie & Me

She had read the book and told him that she, too, has an “odd child” and that “I saw him in your character”. 

“Not seeing the race in Hamish” proved “very powerful”, Hendry relays. 

Upon being asked to describe his novel in five words - a task often reserved for publishers and publicists - Hendry takes a moment of deliberation.

After his considered pause, he resolutely concludes with “South African, poignant, funny, memorable and cathartic”.

And yes, he did find a suitable kilt. Pure barry and lang may yer lum reek!